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News & Events

"When there are too many leaders or too few followers, group performance suffers." — Adam Galinsky, the Morris and Alice Kaplan Professor of Ethics and Decision in Management

“Your passion is a major source of others’ inspiration,” Professor Adam Galinsky told the students. “You cannot inspire others if you yourself are not inspired.”

The power of the pecking order

Hierarchy within groups can lead to greater productivity and efficiency, Professor Adam Galinsky finds

5/29/2012 - Despite our inclination to believe equality within a team or group is important, new research suggests that a built-in hierarchy leads to fewer group conflicts and higher productivity.

The research finds that a team or group composed entirely of high performers will not outperform teams or groups with an established hierarchy. Teams in which everyone has high power are likely to experience elevated levels of conflict, reduced role differentiations, less coordination and integration, and poorer productivity than teams with a broader distribution of power and status.

The study, “The Path to Glory Is Paved with Hierarchy: When Hierarchical Differentiation Increases Group Effectiveness,” was written by Kellogg Professor Adam Galinsky, Richard Ronay of Columbia University, Katharine Greenaway of the University of Queensland and Eric M. Anicich of Columbia University.

The study confirmed the researchers’ theory that “there will be greater conflict with all high-power individuals as each member jostles to take control,” thus undermining group performance.

“We found that a clear hierarchy, division of labor and patterns of deference reduce conflict, facilitate coordination and ultimately improve group productivity,” said Galinsky, the Morris and Alice Kaplan Professor of Ethics and Decision in Management at the Kellogg School. “On the other hand, when there are too many leaders or too few followers, group performance suffers.”

Pecking orders
The research illustrates how the composition of a group ― be it a sports team, corporate work team or political group ― affects the way the group functions. When a group requires lots of coordination, hierarchy wins out.

“Despite the overt appeal of egalitarian social structures, there remains an enduring implicit preference for hierarchy,” Ronay said. The study suggests that this preference has its roots in “the utilitarian value of distributed power.”

The authors found similar findings among animals as well. Previous studies discovered egg production among chickens declined when all the high producers were placed together. Citing this example, the authors note that “pecking orders, it seems, are not just for the birds.”

The two experiments
In the first experiment, 138 undergraduate students were randomly assigned one of three experimental conditions (high-power, low-power, baseline) and organized into same-sex teams of three high-powered participants, three low-power participants or teams with one high-power, one low-power and one baseline.

Next, the researchers had the teams perform a task that required group interdependence. In this task, each member was required to make words from 16 letters and then work as a group to combine the words into as many sentences as possible. They also measured how the groups functioned on a second task that did not require individuals to coordinate their efforts.

The experiment showed that groups with hierarchies were more productive than groups with either all high-power or all low-power individuals. It also showed that hierarchy is most beneficial when group members are working on a task together, providing no advantage to individuals when working alone.

The impact of testosterone
In the second experiment, Galinsky and his co-authors examined the biological basis of hierarchal differentiation to determine whether individual differences play a role in the formation of naturally occurring hierarchies. The researchers sought to test whether limits on the variance in testosterone, a hormone associated with the pursuit of dominance and status, would disrupt the development of a hierarchy and reduce group productivity.

To measure individual differences in prenatal testosterone exposure, they calculated the ratio between the length of the index finger and the ring finger, with lower ratios indicating higher levels of testosterone during prenatal development. Next, they created groups of high-testosterone, low-testosterone or a mix of both and average testosterone. The participants took part in the same word-and-sentence game described in the first experiment, while the researchers measured the conflict within the groups.

They found that the mixed-testosterone groups outperformed the all-high and the all-low testosterone groups, conceptually replicating the first study. Furthermore, decrements in performance by the all-high testosterone groups were driven by increased conflict.

The experiments tested for the first time the central prediction of the functional theories of hierarchy: “When power is distributed, intragroup conflicts decrease while coordination and productivity increase,” the researchers note. Both sets of experiments supported that conclusion.

These findings are consistent with an earlier study co-authored by Galinsky that revealed that hierarchal pay structures on National Basketball Association teams increased performance, promoted coordination and enhanced cooperation on teams.

This new study, “The Path to Glory Is Paved with Hierarchy: When Hierarchical Differentiation Increases Group Effectiveness,” will be published in the journal Psychological Science.